McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr. files a petition for his sentence to be commuted, citing evidence supporting his claim of innocence discovered in a Medill Justice Project investigation
By Allisha Azlan and Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
A New Orleans rapper who has maintained his innocence since his 2001 murder conviction has applied for the Louisiana governor’s clemency, asking to be released from prison for time served. This filing comes less than two years after a Medill Justice Project investigation published by New Orleans-based media outlet The Lens raised questions about his conviction.
McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr. was accused of fatally shooting Barron Victor Jr. at a Slidell, Louisiana, nightclub in February 2000. He was convicted of manslaughter and has served 16 years of his 30-year prison sentence.
Phipps’ clemency petition to the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole seeks a commutation due to a “wrongful conviction and excessive sentence.” The application cites “evidence developed over the last two years” which includes, among other things, findings from MJP’s investigation. That probe centered on questions about whether the key eyewitness who testified against Phipps saw the shooting.
“We’re feeling good about it going in right now,” said Doyle “Buddy” Spell Jr., Phipps’ attorney, about the clemency petition. Spell began representing Phipps pro bono after MJP’s investigation. “We’re very emotionally involved in this case.”
At trial, Nathaniel Tillison said he saw Phipps hold the gun inches from Victor, Tillison’s cousin, and pull the trigger. But statements by others at the scene called into question whether he was in position to see what happened. MJP’s examination also revealed the other eyewitness who testified against Phipps backed off her claim of seeing him fire a gun. Included in the clemency application was an affidavit, which MJP published in its investigation, that stated she had been coerced into accusing Phipps. In addition, MJP interviewed other witnesses who said Phipps never fired a shot and investigated issues regarding eyewitness identification and how his rap lyrics were used against him at trial.
The clemency petition does not seek “legal redemption or the opportunity to relitigate [Phipps’] case.” Phipps has been unsuccessful in appealing his conviction. Instead, Phipps is asking for a hearing with the board, which will review his petition and make a recommendation to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). There is no deadline when the board or governor must respond to the application.
District Attorney Warren Montgomery of St. Tammany Parish, where Phipps’ case was prosecuted, said, “I have neither responsibility for nor authority over the clemency application, and I will have no further comment at this time.”
An official with the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole said he was not aware of the petition yet and it is going through a vetting process for accuracy. The number of petitions the board receives varies; last month there were 33. Since the governor came into office in January, he has not granted any clemency petitions. The previous governor granted 24 over eight years.
Phipps was charged with second-degree murder, but at trial, the judge told jurors they had the option to convict him of the lesser charge of manslaughter if they believed “the killing [was] committed in a sudden passion or heat of blood.” Second-degree murder carried a sentence of life in prison; manslaughter carried a maximum sentence of 40 years.
After about six hours of deliberation, jurors asked for clarification on the difference between the two charges. An hour later, they convicted Phipps of manslaughter. A conviction required 10 of the 12 jurors to agree; two disagreed with the verdict.
Phipps, now 39, is serving his sentence at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel and could not be reached for comment. He performs in prison and occasionally writes songs.
Once nicknamed “Mac the Camouflage Assassin,” Phipps was signed to Master P’s No Limit Records, a label that specialized in gangsta rap, and had toured with Snoop Dogg. An online petition supporting Phipps’ clemency request has garnered nearly 10,000 signatures.